Jim Nantz: The View From Peb­ble Beach

Avoid­ing foot­ball is a gimme

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Avoid­ing foot­ball is a gimme.

As we all know, the con­cept of the gimme putt is anath­ema to the PGA Tour. When the mod­ernised Rules of Golf are rolled out in 2019, you will not find a pro­vi­sion stat­ing that tap-ins will hence­forth be con­sid­ered good. Noth­ing in golf is cer­tain, es­pe­cially on the PGA Tour. ▶ But that’s about to change. If there’s one thing I see as an ab­so­lute lock, it’s that the suc­cess of the re­vamped 2019 PGA Tour sched­ule—the dates of the FedEx Cup play­offs and sea­son-end­ing Tour Cham­pi­onship es­pe­cially—is go­ing to be, for myr­iad rea­sons, a gimme.

There are a bunch of no­table changes in the tour’s new uni­verse, not the least of which are the move of the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship back to March and the PGA Cham­pi­onship from Au­gust to May. The av­er­age fan can’t help but fo­cus at­ten­tion there, be­cause they’re huge events. But al­low me to fo­cus on the end game— the play­offs— which will con­clude the last week­end of Au­gust.

The Tour Cham­pi­onship tra­di­tion­ally ended the third Sun­day in September, which in a tele­vi­sion con­text put it dead up against the NFL na­tional dou­ble­header games aired on CBS or Fox. There’s no deny­ing the NFL is Amer­ica’s favourite tele­vi­sion sport. For ex­am­ple, the 2018 Su­per Bowl pro­duced a Nielsen house­hold rat­ing of 43.1, and the Waste Man­age­ment Phoenix Open ear­lier that same Sun­day drew what is con­sid­ered a re­spectable 2.5. Even high-pro­file golf events don’t pro­duce num­bers that come close to the mighty NFL. The mem­o­rable Ry­der Cup at Hazel­tine in 2016 pro­duced a 2.7, and in 2014, when it was broad­cast from Scot­land and aired early in the day here in the United States, a 1.6.

And what hap­pens when golf reg­u­larly goes head-to-head with the NFL? Over the past 10 years, the late NFL game on Tour Cham­pi­onship Sun­day has dom­i­nated the golf by a whop­ping 13.4 to 1.7. The dis­par­ity is huge. One of PGA Tour com­mis­sioner Jay Mon­a­han’s stated goals when he took over for Tim Finchem in 2017 was to bring the PGA Tour sea­son to an ear­lier close to pre­vent the con­flict and in­crease golf view­er­ship. With each rat­ing point equal­ing up­ward of a mil­lion homes, it’s easy to see why it mat­ters.

It’s that new Au­gust date that steers away from foot­ball that will set up game-chang­ing events. That 1.7 rat­ing for the Tour Cham­pi­onship and the play­off events lead­ing into it should in­stantly go up. To what ex­tent is to be seen, but it’s in­evitable and will be in the range of hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of house­holds. That, in turn, means de­liv­er­ing more eyes to FedEx, the tour’s big­gest spon­sor. The play­off events will be­come much more valu­able. In­cen­tive for play­ers to make it to the post­sea­son will grow stronger.

That’s not all. With the play­offs ar­riv­ing ear­lier, the heart of the PGA Tour sched­ule, which es­sen­tially be­gins at the start of the cal­en­dar year and then gains mo­men­tum at Tor­rey Pines with main­stream net­work cov­er­age, grows more con­densed. The num­ber of tour­na­ments from Tor­rey to the Tour Cham­pi­onship goes from 34 to 31. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s al­most a 10-per­cent re­duc­tion. Th­ese tour­na­ments nat­u­rally be­come a greater fo­cal point for top play­ers. Their grav­i­tas grows. There’s greater drama and more sto­ry­lines. The qual­ity of the golf gets even bet­ter.

Have you no­ticed that as purse sizes in­crease, money as a mea­sur­ing stick re­cedes? I’ve re­alised this al­ready—more fans ref­er­ence the FedEx Cup points standings and World Golf Rank­ings than they do the money list. That’s ex­actly what the tour wants. The more con­densed cen­tral sched­ule also makes the PGA Tour eas­ier to fol­low. All be­cause of that bril­liant sched­ule ad­just­ment.

Hope­fully th­ese types of sea changes are not over. There’s room to ad­just the FedEx Cup play­offs to make them even more co­her­ent, sus­pense­ful and dra­matic. For ex­am­ple, I’ve al­ways viewed as cu­ri­ous the sit­u­a­tion that un­folded last year, when Xan­der Schauf­fele won the Tour Cham­pi­onship but didn’t win the FedEx Cup (that went to Justin Thomas). How to cure that quirk? What if—and I’m just mus­ing here—you had the top-five fin­ish­ers from the Tour Cham­pi­onship ad­vance to a two- or three-hole shootout later that af­ter­noon, the win­ner land­ing that $10 mil­lion prize? Kind of like the show­case round on “The Price Is Right.” Or hand­i­cap the play­ers by strokes so that the fron­trun­ner go­ing into the last event has the lead at the start of the tour­na­ment, and the player in 30th po­si­tion starts a pre­de­ter­mined num­ber of shots back.

Th­ese ideas are far from a gimme. But at the pace the PGA Tour is adapt­ing to the mod­ern sports land­scape, I see in­no­va­tions like the sched­ule change wind­ing up stonedead to the hole.

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